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A family devastated by meth
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Rubetta lost legal custody of her five children because of a 12-year addiction to meth. Rubetta is now spending more time with her daughter, Krista, 8 (pictured). Rubetta is on her fourth attempt to beat the addiction. She says she's been clean for about a year, but some family members are skeptical. (MPR Photo/Tom Robertson)
Methamphetamine is one of the most highly addictive drugs to come along in years. Experts say meth quickly turns casual users into addicts. They become consumed by the drug. They leave a trail of burned bridges and broken trust. This is a story of how meth has devastated the lives of one northern Minnesota family. At the center is a woman named Rubetta. She's making her fourth attempt to break free of meth, and pick up the pieces of her shattered life.

Park Rapids, Minn. — Rubetta lives in a white, 1930s-era rental house on a tree-lined boulevard in Park Rapids.

Inside, what was once a large living room is now jam-packed with stuff. Mounds of secondhand clothing, old pots and pans, books, used furniture, knick-knacks. Mostly rummage sale rejects. Rubetta calls it the Free Store. She puts ads in the local paper inviting people to come in, day or night, and take what they want, no charge. The Free Store is something of a penance for Rubetta.

"Helping people kind of gets my focus off of me and my poor little self," she said. "But sometimes it gets to be a real mess. Like now."

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Image Dena, Rubetta's mom

The mess could be a metaphor for Rubetta's life. Rubetta, 36, has faced a number of drug-related charges. She's been in and out of treatment. For 12 years she's been addicted to meth. The drug has rotted away half her teeth. She has five children, all with different fathers. And because of meth, Rubetta has lost custody of all of them.

"I was addicted to a lifestyle that included using, buying, selling drugs," she said. "OK, (if) the kids are around, we'd go hide in the back room or whatever and go use. And I'd try to come out and be a mom, try to keep it as normal as I could for the kids."

Rubetta started using meth socially with her husband in the early 1990s. When they divorced a few years later, she began dating a man who cooked his own meth in labs in the woods. That's when her habit turned to obsession. She even used meth during most of her pregnancies. She knew it was wrong, but she couldn't stop, even after authorities busted the meth lab in 1996.

"And when I was ... coming off a two- or three-day high, and I hadn't gotten any sleep -- and I all the sudden got this sense of reality that would kick in and go, 'You gotta quit using,'" said Rubetta. "OK, I'm gonna. And I was gonna come down, and that would be my last time."

When she's using meth, she's a completely different person ... It's like she's lost some of those brain cells that gave her sensitivity. I think meth has taken away something permanently.
- Dena, Rubetta's mother

"And then I'd sleep. And I'd get up and just feel this overwhelming depression -- I can't make my breakfast, I can't tie my shoes, I can't take a shower. So all I want to do is hide or sleep. And I was just so depressed coming off that stuff that the only thing that would make me feel better is more dope," Rubetta said.

None of the kids has had any obvious health problems from their mother's drug use.

Daughter Krista is in second grade. Her dad has legal custody of her, but lately she's been spending more time with Rubetta. Krista seems mature beyond her eight years. She's seen her mom at her worst. She's now one of Rubetta's biggest cheerleaders.

"She's been clean now and not doing drugs anymore, and not being, like, confused or forgetting about the time, forgetting about us," said Krista. "And my life is going better because she'll listen to what I'm saying."

But not all of Rubetta's family members are as confident in her latest attempt at sobriety.

Dena, Rubetta's mother, lives in rural Park Rapids. Dena is flipping through a photo album filled with pictures of her grandkids. She helped raise some of the kids herself because of Rubetta's meth addiction.

It's hard for Dena to forgive Rubetta. She says her grandkids have suffered the most. Dena says in a way, it feels like she's lost her daughter. She blames it all on meth.

"When she's using meth, she's a completely different person," said Dena. "She gets angry at people, physically abusive towards people. It's like she's lost, lost some of those brain cells that gave her sensitivity. I think meth has taken something away permanently."

Dena's relationship with Rubetta has been strained for years.

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Image Leah, Rubetta's oldest daughter

"We talk now, but there's always a tension. It will take a long time to get rid of it, if ever," said Dena. "For one thing, there's the trust. I've lost a lot of faith and trust in Rubetta, because this is the fourth time now that she supposedly has been clean. She's not as clean as she says she is."

Just a mile down the road lives another woman who's helped raise Rubetta's children.

Charlotte was Rubetta's mother-in-law. She's grandmother to Henry, Rubetta's only son. Charlotte has had custody of Henry and Leah, Rubetta's oldest daughter, for five years. She keeps a file of the custody case. It includes letters, court documents, and social worker reports that show a pattern of neglect and broken promises.

Charlotte says Rubetta has disappointed the kids over and over. She's forgotten birthdays, failed to show up for dance recitals or hockey games.

"And there is no turning back the clock, there is no forgiving, totally. There's no forgetting. I don't care. The hurt cannot be undone," Charlotte said. "I try as much as I can because of the kids. But I have to say, really deep down, I hate her. There is no question, I hate her."

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Image Bob, Rubetta's ex-boyfriend

Leah, 14, is thin, with black hair and fair skin. She seems a typical teenager. But Leah says life with her mom was far from typical.

Leah remembers her mom staying awake for days at a time, then crashing into several days of deep sleep. There were often strangers in the house doing drugs. She says when her mom was on meth, she rarely ate. That meant Leah and her sisters often went hungary, too, or had to fend for themselves.

"She's our mom and everything, but it seems like since she was off in her drug world and stuff, she never really had time to be a mom," Leah said. "She was more like, I don't know, kind of like the big sister. Sometimes I actually felt like the mom. It seemed like I was taking care of my sisters more than she was."

Children are being neglected or abandoned more and more because of meth. In a two-year period, law enforcers in Hubbard County busted 61 meth labs. Many of those involved kids. Authorities expect this will be a record year for more busts. But they say for every lab they find, there's probably 10 more out there.

Meth has put pressure on the Hubbard County jail, too. At times, more than one-third of the inmates are there on meth-related charges.

One of the prisoners is Rubetta's ex-boyfriend. His name is Bob. Bob is 40, but looks much older. He's got only nine teeth left. The rest were eaten away by meth. He'd been a casual drug user since high school. But eight years ago, meth grabbed hold of him and never let go.

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Image Rubetta

"When you first try it, it's fun. It's exciting. It's exhilarating. It's carefree. It's happy. This stuff's neat," said Bob. "It's also alluring and deceitful, and cunning and sneaky and hateful and relentless and extreme. It's a liar. Once you do meth, it is in control of you. You never control it. It will ruin your life."

Bob is the father of Rubetta's daughter, Megan, who is 2. He's raised Megan since she was seven weeks old. In February last year, Bob's house burned down from a meth-related fire. Bob says his brother ran a meth lab in a back bedroom, right next to Megan's room. Bob and Megan barely escaped the blaze.

Bob says the fire made him realize that meth had become the most important thing in his life. He pleaded guilty this month to a meth-related charge.

"I'm on my way to jail for seven years," said a teary-eyed Bob. "I'm going to be away from my little girl. And that hurts, you know? Man, this kid, all I wanted to do was be a good dad."

Like so many addicts before her, Rubetta has found religion. She spends a lot of time in church. She's got a key to one church because she runs Narcotics Anonymous meetings here several times a week. Rubetta, standing in the center of the sanctuary, says she'd be dead without God.

"Look at it. It's beautiful," said Rubetta. "I've come here all times, day and night. And I've just laid on the altar before, just like, 'God, just tell me what to do, because I'm lost, you know.'"

Rubetta was once a hard core rock and roller. Now, she's taken to writing Christian songs on the church's baby grand piano.

Rubetta says she's been clean, more or less, for about a year. The effects of meth still linger in her system. Her bones and joints ache. She fights bouts of depression. Her teeth continue to decay.

Rubetta says she's gearing up to fight for custody of at least some of her children. For now, the caretakers of those kids will likely fight back to make sure that doesn't happen.

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